Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Castles: Chapter One

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Castles

H.S. Kallinger


Book five of The Lost Humanity series






Chapter One



By some miracle, we made it home from the battle of Sacramento without being attacked again. Tank volunteered to take Cezary to his house, so once Lukas and I dropped our armor off and made it to our car, I drove us straight home. Lukas complained a few times that I was going too slow, and I held up the hand that had been bisected by a sword to remind him that we really didn't want to be pulled over.
The minute we hit our street, though, all of my caution went out the window, and I pushed the car fast enough that Lukas shot me a nervous glance. Considering how many times he'd scared me with his driving, I couldn't help but feel he had it coming.

I opened my door the moment the car was in park and turned it off as I was standing up. I didn't waste time walking; I ran vampire speed for the door. It opened before I reached it. A sobbing redhead smacked into me. I dropped my bag on the floor and picked up my wife, ignoring the pain of my battle wounds. Her legs wrapped around my waist and her arms around my shoulders. She clung tightly to me as I walked into the house and over to the couch. Nearly everyone else we had left behind was sitting and watching our reunion.

Bonnie was on the side closest to me. She shot us a tentative smile and ran her fingers through her purple, black and pink hair. Garret was sitting on the far edge of the chaise, his expression dark, and I wondered if he was still angry from my good-bye earlier or if something else had crawled up his butt. Jamie was curled into a ball on the middle of the couch, fast asleep. I plopped down next to her, jostling her awake.

Oh, hey,” she said, blinking blearily up at me.

Hi,” I said, adjusting Sarah so she could cling more comfortably. I felt a lot better with her in my arms, even if she was sobbing with what I assumed was relief. I kissed her head. “Sorry it's so late.”

Just for me,” Jamie said. She sat up and stretched. Her light blonde hair was a mess on the side she'd been lying on. Lukas dropped down into his chair. Jamie nodded to him. “Now that I see you guys are alive, I'm going to bed.”

Dream in English,” I said, reaching out to ruffle her already mussed hair.

Actually, I was,” she said with a yawn. “I was dreaming about cheese, though.”

Were you eating it?” I asked.

No. It was just there,” she said, standing up. She patted Sarah's head, walked over to Lukas to do the same and then walked off to the bedroom. Lukas alone followed after her. I didn't think Sarah would help Jamie sleep in her current state. She continued clinging to me.

Okay, so what is up with you?” I asked Garret. “Are you still mad at me for good-bye?”

No,” he said, turning to face away from me. Sarah sat back and rubbed at her face.

He's fighting with Bonnie.” Sarah told me, meeting my eyes with her bloodshot green pair.

Why?” I asked, looking between the two of them.

He didn't like what I had to say about his tantrum earlier,” Bonnie answered.

Tantrum?” I turned to Garret, and he turned to face the couch entirely.

He was worried about you,” Sarah said. “He managed to work himself up over it and went out to sulk in the back yard. Bonnie chased after him and—”

Garret stood up abruptly and stormed out of the house. I watched him go without saying anything. I didn't need to be told that this was embarrassing him. For someone who had no shame when it came to flirting or sexual innuendo, it was surprising how easily embarrassed he was about other feelings. He slammed the door on his way out. Sarah slid off my lap onto the couch.

I frowned. I had been so enamored of him that I hadn't thought of how little I knew about him before we had hooked up. We'd been sorta friends for over a year, but I'd always tried to keep it even more superficial than work friendships.

I supposed that that was what dating was for—getting to know each other. The only person I'd skipped that step with had been my shortest relationship. Well, not that you could call what I'd done with Sarah or Lukas 'dating,' but we'd at least had quite a bit of time to get to know each other before becoming intimate.

I didn't want just a fling with Garret. I had pushed to wait because I had always assumed rushing into things had been what had killed my relationship with Marianne in college. I'd had that same intense attraction to her as I'd had to him. She'd left me for someone else, though. If Garret wanted someone else, that didn't mean he had to stop being with me. Everything was very different now. Only time would tell if us jumping into bed like we had would be detrimental.

I chased him,” Bonnie said, catching my attention. I turned back to her. “When I found out why he was so upset, I called bullshit on his whole not being able to love thing. He said I didn't know what I was talking about, told me to mind my own business. I told him that you are my business now, 'cause of being my flock brother, and he still tried to shut me down by saying I didn't know what it was like to be him, so I couldn't say anything about it.”

You know, I've been trying to work him up to all of this slowly,” I said, sighing. “We just started dating. It's bad enough that I've already said the L-word. I don't need him to. He's sensitive about the whole topic, so I'm always careful to admit that—that I'm not in his head, so I can't know for sure. I had him thinking, though. You probably just screwed that up. I can see this sending him back to denying it just because he's mad about being confronted over it. Besides, he's right. We're applying our own expectations and interpretations to his feelings.”

Jamie says she thinks he may have had some kind of attachment disorder as a kid,” Sarah said. “Then she said something about absent or unstable relationships leading to not really understanding them or whatever. So he says he doesn't want a relationship, but he jumped on the opportunity to have one with you, and then he freaks out when he thinks something could happen to you—”

Well, he didn't jump on the relationship thing,” I said, shaking my head. “He jumped into bed. Honestly, I don't know what he feels about the idea of being in a romantic relationship. He talks about the whole thing in a really detached, clinical way. I think that first part is dead on—he doesn't understand them.

He had a long-term, non-consensual relationship with his sire, whom he didn't love. He didn't try to get out and have any kind of other life. He did love his daughter-slash-sister figure and her husband, although he doesn't call it that, and it's clearly a platonic love. He's put off by her having sex, just like I am about the idea of Eva and Mia eventually doing it.”

Really? I didn't know that,” Sarah said. “Wait, who's his daughter-slash-sister? What does that even mean?”

Yeah. Apparently, he found Polly as a little kid, adopted her and raised her. He said he thought of her as a sister, but... Well, I never had a sister, so I don't know what that kind of relationship is like.” I looked at Bonnie.

Don't look at me,” she said. “My big sister talked to me about having sex. Didn't bother us. I never brought it up with my brothers though. They would have tracked down any boy they knew I was sleeping with and beat the hell out of him. Well, maybe not really, but that's what they said.”

Sounds like standard big brother stuff,” Sarah said. Bonnie nodded.

Tomas and Colin once cornered a boy I was dating in high school and told him that if he ever made me cry, they'd make him cry. Tommy was twenty-one, and Colin was nineteen, and we were sixteen, so they scared him so bad he bored me into dumping him.”

That had to get annoying,” Sarah said.

A little. Not really,” Bonnie said softly. “I mean, I yelled at them, but... I was glad they had my back. Even Stewie, who was only fifteen when I graduated, got in on it. My big sister Ainsley said that Tommy and Colin made it almost impossible for her to date, 'cause they were all in school together. Excuse me, I need to go e-mail them.”

Bonnie stood up and walked over to the computer. I felt bad about upsetting her, but at least she was doing something productive with it.

I just don't feel like Garret's ready to rethink a hundred years of believing that he's broken,” I said. “When I told him what love is like for me, it sounded like the only ways that it's different for him are that he doesn't get jealous and has no interest in exclusivity.”

I think he's afraid of it,” Sarah said.

How do you mean?” I asked.

Well, remember what he said about how love can make people do horrible things?” Sarah looked at the front door. “It really makes me wonder what kind of exposure he's had to it. He basically said that he's afraid of you being in love with him, that he has to trust you won't be 'that kind of person' or whatever it was he said.”

He assumed that Lukas was beating you,” I said. “He asked if him smacking your butt was just playing when I said he'd never punished you like that before. I'm guessing at least some of what he's seen has been abusive.”

I...” Sarah looked over at Bonnie and then sighed. “Go talk to him. I think he's going to stay out there until the sun comes up otherwise.”

I don't want to bother him if he needs time alone,” I said. “He has absolutely no problem being sexual or flirty, but deeper emotions—he doesn't like to show those. Not to me, anyway.”

He probably got punished for it,” Bonnie commented. “I don't mean, like, disciplinary action. I mean, like when you show your feelings and someone uses them against you. I saw that happen more in Diarmad's flock than ours, but that's because I was low in his. It's the kind of shit you hope will stop after high school. Guess it doesn't.”

Gets worse in college,” I muttered. “Especially if you're a guy.”

Go talk to him anyway,” Sarah said. “Or do you not want to?”

I don't want to scare him off,” I said. “I don't know what part gender played in emotional expression when and where he came from, but I know I was actively discouraged from it. You guys are the only reason I'm not afraid to express myself. It was a relief, not having to pretend I wasn't in pain when I was. It took me some time getting comfortable with the romantic stuff, but Lukas... it makes him so happy.”

Makes me happy, too,” Sarah said, smiling. I sighed and stood up.

This had better not backfire,” I said.

I walked to the front door muttering about how much I hated societal expectations overriding innate personality and making it impossible to tell if someone was behaving a way because it was expected or because it was genuinely a reflection of who they were. Sarah muttered back that I sounded like Jamie right as I opened the front door.

I shut it behind me and started looking for Garret. He wasn't anywhere that I could see, so I tried to find his scent. It led me off to the woods, which reminded me of his two truths and a lie where he'd said that he liked strolls through dark forests at night. It was a lot harder to follow his scent here; there were too many distractions. I did my best, but when I lost the trail, I called out to him.

Come out, come out, wherever you are!” I opened my senses to try to detect any reaction. Much of the animal noises died for a moment. Then his voice answered me—from above.

Up here, marra,” he said. I looked up to find him in the tree where I'd lost his scent.

He was disturbingly high up in a black oak tree. I scanned the other trees. Yep, he'd picked the tallest. He was probably sixty feet up. It wasn't one of the nice knobby climbing ones, either. No, it had a long, straight trunk for at least fifteen feet. I sighed. I could probably grab the lowest branch, but it was thick, and I wouldn't have a way to hold on, especially with only one hand.

Are you coming down?” I asked.

No,” he said.

Why?”

I like it up here,” he said.

Do you want to be alone?” I asked.

I don't care,” he said.

If I go back without talking to you, Sarah is going to chew me out,” I said.

Not my problem,” he said.

I can make it your problem,” I grumbled. Then I remembered that I was out here because he was in a defensive mood. “Sorry, I know you're in a bad mood. I'm blaming Sarah, but she only harassed me because she knows I want to talk to you.”

Why?” he asked.

You want the short answer or the long one?” I asked. He was quiet for a few moments.

Short.”

Because I like talking to you,” I said.

I'm not in the mood to talk,” he said.

We don't have forever until sunrise,” I said. “If you don't want to talk, that's fine. But I was looking forward to being with you tonight. If you don't want that, either, I'll leave you alone.”

Did they tell you the rest of it, then? You here 'cause you reckon Bonnie's right?” he demanded.

I told you why I'm here. I told Bonnie that what she said wasn't helpful and that she's applying her own perspective to your feelings,” I said. He didn't say anything. “I don't know what to do here. I don't know you well enough to know if you want me to back off or to push you. I'm frustrated.”

Do you reckon I love you?” he asked.

I don't know,” I answered. “I think you're the only one who can answer that, and it's kinda early to be worrying about it. I'm not going to tell you what you feel or how to feel. What I do know is that you and I like to be together. We're friends; we care about each other. The sex is good... and I can't climb this tree, so you're going to have to come down to me.”

You could come up here if you was to try,” Garret said. I frowned at the tree again.

How? There's no handholds. I'm shit at jumping. I can reach the branch, but it's too thick to grab on. Plus, one of my hands is sli—badly injured.” I waited, but he didn't answer me.

I walked away, turned to face the tree and sat down. It sounded like he wanted to be chased. Well, fine then. I stared at the tree and tried my hardest to figure out how to get up there. That's when I realized that the trees next to it had lower branches.

Well, I felt stupid. I walked over to the taller of the two trees and climbed it. I hadn't climbed a tree since I was a kid, but I didn't really have any trouble, outside of my left hand aching every time I grabbed something. I had to hop over to his tree, but I made it easily. It only took me a couple minutes to climb up to him from there.

See? You just had to want it,” he said.

Oh, so you're saying I can do whatever I want?” I asked, raising my eyebrow. I carefully nestled myself into the juncture where the trunk split into four branches at its top, grabbed him and pulled him over to my lap. “I'm going to assume that that was an invitation.”

Whatever you like,” he said, relaxing against me. He trailed his fingers along my leg.

To talk,” I finished. He stiffened, and I held him tightly so he couldn't get away. I shifted to sling my legs over his, completely trapping him. “I've been through a lot tonight. If you want a fight, I'll give it to you, and I'll win. You can't fly with me holding onto you. There is nothing you can do at this point to get away. You want me to work for you? No problem. But I expect reciprocity. I'm done being the only one putting in effort here.”

Hasn't been a week, and you're already done with summat?” he asked.

A week ago, you wouldn't have been so worried about me that you had to run off,” I said.

Guess not,” he agreed. “We wasn't bonded then.”

Were you as worried about Lukas?” I asked. He didn't say anything. “I'm not going to be upset unless you refuse to talk to me. I just want the truth. I swear it won't hurt my feelings if you say yes.”

That's not... I... I wasn't,” he said.

Because he's a better warrior?” I asked. I gave him a moment to decide how he wanted to answer before I prompted him. “Again, I'm not going to be offended.”

Well, I did watch you get your heart half-tore out,” he said. “But that's not it, neither.”

Because you aren't as attached to him?” I asked. He didn't answer again. I started to ask another question, but he interrupted me.

You do reckon Bonnie's right,” he said.

I think that you're worried that she's right,” I said. He tried to struggle away from me, but it wasn't hard for me to hold onto him. I buried my face against his shoulder.

You know, if I was willin' to hurt you, I could get away,” he snapped. His ghost fingers tugged at my braid, and I remembered that I hadn't made it to the shower. I flinched.

I'm sorry that I smell so bad,” I said.

Huh?” he stopped struggling.

I tore apart half a dozen vampires with my bare hands. I know that I'm gross, and I'm sorry,” I said.

That's not why I'm—”

I know, but I just realized. You're trying to run away from what I'm saying because you don't want to feel what you do, or you don't want to think about it or whatever it is. The thing is, if you didn't agree, you would be arguing. You're mad because I'm right,” I said. He yanked my hair with his telekinesis, but I didn't let go. Instead, I rested my chin on his shoulder. “I love you, Garret.”

He froze, but his heart raced along. I nuzzled the back of his neck. I whispered it again, and listened as his heart beat just a little faster for a moment.

I'm going to let you run away now,” I said. “I'm going to go home and take a shower because I cannot stand being covered in gore for another minute. I got distracted by all of this, and I want to stay with you, but I have to get clean. I'm sorry.”

I released him, and he immediately took off into the sky. I sighed and went to work climbing down the tree. Well, I'd set him free. If he came back, did that mean that he was mine?

I made it to the lowest branch and looked down nervously. It wasn't that far to fall, but now that I wasn't in any kind of emergency, the idea of jumping from such a height was nerve-wracking. I crouched and braced myself for impact. Garret appeared in front of me, and I slipped. I grabbed the branch frantically and managed not to fall.

Goddammit!” I shouted while he laughed, falling a little. He caught himself before he hit the ground and floated back up in front of me. He held his arms out while I pulled myself back up.

Jump,” he said. “I'll catch you.”

I'll just knock you down,” I said. He half-smiled and continued offering. I crawled up onto my hand and knees and turned in a crouch. I took a deep breath and jumped to him. He caught me. Instead of crashing to the ground, we fell slowly. I could see the strain in his face, but he acted like a parachute, and our landing was only a little hard. “Thanks.”

Go shower. Since you mentioned it, you're rank,” he said, looking away.

I headed back to the house, listening to be sure he was following behind. When we walked inside, we found Lukas cuddling Sarah on the couch and Bonnie playing around on Facebook. Lukas and Sarah glanced over at us, and I walked over to them. Lukas was fresh from the shower himself. His hair was hanging down just past his shoulders, getting the back of the couch damp.

I'm going to shower now,” I said. He nodded and glanced curiously at Garret, who skulked off to the end of the chaise lounge again. I ignored him. “Can we use your room when I get out?”

Lukas gave me a long look.

It's okay if you say no,” I said, shrugging. It would be annoying, but I'd certainly understand. The problem was that I didn't have a room of my own. I had the music room, but we might disturb Jamie since it was just off the master bedroom. “We can always go to the guest house.”

No, you do not have to do that. Consider that room yours as well, please,” he said, reaching up to touch my cheek. “It is where you will be sleeping for the next two years at least. You do not need my permission.”

Thanks,” I said. I kissed his head and trotted off for the bathroom through his—our room.

Garret followed after me again. When we got to the bedroom, he detoured to the bed, kicked his shoes off and lay down facing away from the bathroom. I dropped my clothes on the floor, giving them a little kick. They were probably just going to be burned. I showered as quickly as I could while making sure that I didn't miss anything. Then I hurried back out to the bedroom wearing nothing but a towel.

Okay, where was I?” I asked, crawling up onto the bed behind Garret. He ignored me. “Oh, yeah. I love you.”

Zack...”

How many people have said that to you?” I asked him. It took a moment before he answered.

Two that I can recall if you don't count Polly,” he said.

Is that counting me?” I asked, running my fingers through his hair.

Aye.”

What does it make you feel?” I asked. “When I say it, that is.”

I don't know,” he said. “I just don't know.”

Do you not like it?”

I...” He rolled onto his stomach and buried his face against his arms. I moved over to lie against his back, smoothing my towel between us. “I do like it. I want you to keep sayin' it.”

So I did. I enjoyed the way his heart pounded while I kissed the back of his neck and whispered to him. But when I smelled saltwater and a change in his scent, I stopped, rolled him over onto his back and crawled back on top of him. He threw his arm across his eyes and turned his head away from me. I grabbed his hand and pulled it off so I could look at his face. He stared up at me. His face was a mask of confusion.

You're right,” he said quietly. “I am afraid she's right.”

Why?” I asked, brushing his hair out of his face. “What does it change?”

It changes me,” he said, looking away unhappily. “It's your fault.”

How does it change you? I don't think it does,” I said. “You already loved Polly and Adam.”

Not—I didn't want...”

I know,” I said, brushing the backs of my fingers against his cheek, wiping away the tear there. “You love them like family. They are your family. Your whole flock was. We don't always like our family. I've got an uncle who told my dad he should just let me kill myself when I was depressed over being taken away from Lukas. You had brothers who abused you. Sometimes family sucks.”

I didn't love Justin,” Garret said firmly.

Why would you?” I asked. “He abused you, too.”

Lukas abused you,” Garret said. I shrugged.

You're right. But I'm not saying you're like me. You're still very much just you. I fall in love pretty easily, I guess. I don't know. Lukas deliberately used psychology to forcibly bond us to him. He wanted dependence, and he got it. It just backfired on him, and he fell in love with us, too. Justin groomed you to be his sex toy. If you'd been a girl, you'd probably have been a trophy wife.”

Sounds right,” Garret said, his eyes sad. “If he'd not come along, Margaret mighta married me.”

Why did she sell you, then? If she loved you—”

'Cause she was havin' sex wi' me,” Garret said, looking at me like the answer was obvious. “I was only just over the age of consent when she took me in; we wasn't married, and she was fuckin' me. It was either take the money—a lot of money, mind—and hand me over, or he'd a had her disgraced.”

Oh. I didn't know there were age of consent laws then,” I said. He nodded.

They was new. They changed from eleven to thirteen when I was a kid. There was some noise about it.”

I can't imagine being mad that you can't have sex with a twelve year-old,” I said, cringing. “Speaking of kids... You were with Margaret for two years. Did you guys have... contraception? And how old was she?”

Aye. She was eighteen. Rubbers were made of animal guts back then. They had actual rubber ones, but they wasn't as popular. I usually just pulled out, though,” he said. “So no kids.”

Were you planning to marry her?” I asked.

I didn't plan n—anythin'. I did as I was told. She mentioned it a few times, though. I reckoned it was what I was supposed to do, and I'd managed to do well after all. She was way above me, so I'd be marryin' up. Then we'd have kids and not die so's they'd have a home and parents and everythin' I didn't.” His eyes were focused somewhere in the past as he spoke. “I wasn't happy when she told me that I was Justin's.”

Did she just say it like that? Just come home and say, 'hey, so, you're that vampire's now?'” I asked. He snorted.

No. He sees me walkin' home from town and come over to ask for a look at me. Well, we're not expectin' anyone callin' so late, mind, and we're in bed when he shows up. He knows right away, like. She sends me back to bed, and I fall asleep before she gets back. Couple day later, she telt me at dinner.

She asks me if I recall him and says I's leavin' wiv him, that he's paid good money, like, and I's not to be no fash about it. Er, no trouble about it, that is. 'Be a canny lad, now,' she says. I beg her not to sell me to him. She starts cryin' and run out. Never s-said another word to me.” Garret's eyes closed. I scooted down a little to rest my head on his shoulder so I wasn't looming over him.

You sounded like you didn't care when you told me the first time,” I said as his breath caught.

You saw him, didn't you? I didn't want te be some poofter wi' that ugly bastard! I didn't wanna gan te Hell! I run away, but he caught me, course. Skinned me, telt me I'd get it every night if I didn't be good. So I was good, and he was good to me in turn. Gave me whatever I wanted, as long as I did what he wanted,” he said. I hugged him, shaking. I hadn't realized how much alike our paths to this life had been.

I had no idea we...” I stopped and tried again. “It wasn't that different with Lukas, except that I was attracted to him but didn't know what to do with it. I didn't want to be attracted to guys, and I didn't like vampires. Not that I had anything against them really, I just didn't really think much about them.

Then suddenly, I was kidnapped by one and told I was a slave and he was going to do whatever he wanted to me. We tried to leave; he beat Jamie. I tried again; he beat me. Sarah tried, and another vampire attacked and nearly killed her. We gave up.”

Garret and I lay there quietly for a while, not moving. He lifted my left hand, and I assumed he was examining it, but I didn't look. It still ached.

So why did you fall in love wiv him, and I didn't wi' Justin?” Garret asked.

Maybe because Lukas let me say no?” I suggested. “Maybe the difference between our sexuality or the way we love. Like I said, I fall in love easily. For you, it's so rare that you don't even really believe it's possible. Jamie didn't fall in love with Lukas. It took her years to love him in any way. Sarah had an immediate crush on him and fell in love with him really fast. It took me months.

Every time he beat me, it set us back. I didn't even realize I was in love with him until Jamie pointed it out. Even then, I didn't want it to be true. I was willing to accept Stockholm Syndrome—that I was attached to and dependent on him because he'd manipulated me into it. I'll never know if I only love him now because of that or not, and we both regret it.”

Why'd you fall in love with me?” Garret asked.

I already answered that,” I said.

Maybe I just want to hear it again,” he said softly. I smiled and pushed up on my elbows to meet his eyes again.

Because I love looking at you,” I said, stroking his face. “Because you make me laugh and think, and being around you makes me happy. Because you made me notice you, and I liked what I saw. Because you're fun and kind at heart and picked me to cover your ass with.”

You know, you drove me bonkers, runnin' so hot and cold wi' me,” Garret said. “I wasn't n—I never knew when you'd go from bein' friendly to bein' an arse. Sometimes, you'd be nice the whole time, and others, you'd act like I was naught but an annoyance.”

Those were the times when I wanted you so badly that I was pissed off at both of us,” I admitted. “A lot of the time, I'd've had a dream about you recently, and it would pop into my head when I saw you.”

You twat,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I was startin' to reckon you really was mental.”

That was your fault,” I said, grinning. I kissed him and then leaned in next to his ear. “Thank you for not giving up on me.”

Well, it seems there's some chance I might be in love wiv you,” he whispered back. I stopped breathing. I felt like something had hit me in the chest. “Don't mind if I'm still skeptical, like.”

Not at all,” I whispered roughly, gripping the sheets.

It wasn't his fault, but I suddenly needed to get away. I crawled to the end of the bed and sat cross-legged, staring at nothing. My hand played absently with the thick velvet drape. I wished Bonnie had left him alone. I'd planned to stop pushing him about it because it seemed like he didn't want to be in love. Lukas hadn't wanted to love me, either. I hadn't wanted to love either of them, for different reasons.

What's wrong?” he asked, crawling after me.

I'm sorry,” I said, balling my hand into the fabric under it.

For what?” he asked, perplexed.

For pushing you. I don't understand why love scares you or whatever. I didn't want to make you think you're feeling anything you're not or make you do anything you don't want to.”

Don't want to?” he repeated. He grabbed my wrists and made me look at him. I had to let go of the drape. “Marra, I divvent wanna be fucked up and not able to love nobody. I feel like a freak. Even Benedict had someone he loved, and he was a bloody sick nutter.”

Did he hurt her?” I asked as my brain made a connection to Sarah's earlier guess about Garret's exposure to love. Garret nodded.

I divvent wanna talk about that,” he said. “I div—don't even think about it if I can avoid it.”

Have you ever seen a healthy relationship?” I asked.

Adam and Polly,” he said without hesitation. “I'd a killed him otherwise.”

No, you clearly can't love,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Poor confused boy.”

I'm a hundred sixteen year older than you,” he said.

Please keep reminding me,” I said with a laugh. “Sometimes it really bothers me that you're physically nineteen.”

Poor pervy old man,” Garret said, grinning.

Me? I'm not the one with a lover over a century younger than me!” I teased back.

But you're near twice my age physically!” he reminded me with a laugh.

Oh, bullshit. I'd have needed another six years before I was that old,” I said, making him laugh harder.

I kissed him, knocking him back onto the bed. My towel had fallen off, leaving me naked on top of him. He grabbed my arms and pushed me up to straddle him so he could look me over. I felt my face get hot under the scrutiny. His expression got serious.

Can I ask you summat?”

What?” I reached for the towel, but he caught my hand before I could grab it. He reached out and touched the scar encircling my shaft.

Aren't you Christian?” he asked. I nodded. “Then why...?”

Uh, 'cause I'm American? It was just done when I was born. It wasn't religious,” I said.

Okay. I just wondered. I'd never seen one like it before. You're the first American bloke I've been wiv,” he told me. “I didn't know if that was just a rumor or what. You don't need to be embarrassed. You're red as my hair.”

It's not like I talk about my dick a ton, unless I'm making jokes,” I said. He pushed me down to his thighs so he could unfasten his pants. I moved to help him pull them off; then he prodded me back to sit on his legs so he could grab us together.

Well, if we're not gonna talk about it, might as well use it,” he said, grinning.

I laughed and fell down so I could kiss him again. I pushed against his hand, and he got my drift. He worked us together while I buried my hands in his hair and enjoyed the taste of his mouth. I started moving more as I got close, and he let go so I could take over. He grabbed my shoulders and threw his head back and to the side. I kissed his throat, having to stop myself from biting him.

I pressed myself tightly against him, moving quickly, but I couldn't finish. After a minute, I stopped. I didn't know what was wrong, but something was. I rolled over onto my side next to him and put my head on his shoulder. He wiggled until I moved enough to let him wrap his arm around my shoulders. I was throbbing now. I felt him move; then he made a questioning sound.

You didn't go?” he asked. I didn't say anything, and he touched my cheek. “Is summat wrong?”

I can't,” I said. “I don't know why.”

You probably just need longer,” he said. He licked his hand and reached for me. I rolled onto my back so he had better access and tried to relax. It didn't take long before I was right there again, but I still couldn't get past it. He switched hands and touched my jaw, and I realized it was clenched. “Relax, marra. You're so tense, it's no wonder you cannot go.”

I put the back of my arm over my eyes and tried to relax, but now that I was aware of it, I could feel that I was anxious as all hell. I was starting to get sore, too. I put my hand on his wrist, and he stopped. Regretfully, I shook my head.

I can't,” I repeated. “It's anxiety.”

Over what?” he asked.

I don't know. I've... I've had problems before,” I said softly, embarrassed. “Not like this, though. Before, I just couldn't get interested. Back when Uriah was stalking us. Fuck.”

I'm sorry,” he said, pulling me back onto him in a hug. “You got nothin' to worry about now, though. Media's fallin' for the setup with that wanker politician, and Sacramento lost. You can relax.”

We personally lost thirty-three men tonight. Emidio lost another twenty. Salem lost five, and proved she could take Redding without breaking a sweat if she wants. They haven't done the autopsy on Swift yet. I killed over twenty, maybe over thirty people tonight. I don't even know.

Lukas was beheaded; he almost died. I thought I'd screwed up when he didn't start healing right away because I was looking in the wrong place 'cause I had a concussion. Someone broke my nose; I almost had my hand cut off; I was shot and poisoned, fed on two people without their permission and a teenage girl who's already feeding vampires but can't be old enough. I wasn't planning on her consenting; she just did.

Then I come home, and you're fighting with Bonnie because you don't want to love me, but you might, and I end up having to worry that it's screwed up everything with us, and I didn't know what the hell to do because I spent so much time distancing myself from you that I barely know you and—”

I reckon we found your anxiety,” Garret said calmly, stopping me before I devolved further into incoherent babbling.

At least he hadn't hit me. I had a vivid flashback to the house after HAR and going through something very similar to what was happening now. Lukas had slapped me for going off like that.

For a minute, I could see myself staring blankly from the mirror, words scrawled across my forehead in permanent marker. I could feel my skin burn as I scrubbed it off with a towel. I grabbed Garret's arm to shake it off and remind myself of where I really was.

Whoa, marra, what just happened?” he asked, grabbing my arm back.

PTSD flashback,” I whispered, letting him go. “I didn't hurt you, did I?”

No, I'm fine. You just started shakin' and wasn't seein' me. You said, 'well, it's been true,' and when I asked what that meant, you didn't answer me.”

'I whore for vampires,'” I said. “It's what HAR wrote on my forehead. When Lukas found me, I'd just washed all the blood off of me, and he wouldn't come near me. When I asked if I'd done something wrong, he commented that I must not have looked at myself. I cleaned the mirror and saw the words for the first time. That's what I said after I read them.”

Garret kissed my forehead and pulled me close. The sensation of the scratchy towel from years ago completely vanished. I held onto him, terrified to even think. I did make a mental note to never, ever trust my mental state after any kind of battle again and never let myself be alone after one.

Distract me, please,” I said. “I don't want it to happen again.”

We'll get cleaned up and go out wiv everyone else,” he suggested, but I shook my head violently.

I don't want to be in the bathroom. That's where I just was. Or I was then. Whatever. Plus, I had a really bad one after Swift's death in the bathroom and—”

Okay, okay. We'll just use your towel,” he said.

You can go clean up,” I said as he grabbed the towel. He shook his head and wiped himself down.

He handed me the towel, and I flinched when I tried to clean up. Dammit, I was really sore. My balls were killing me. At least when I wasn't able to get up, I didn't have to deal with everything backing up. He took my hand and led me over to the dresser. I grabbed a pair of boxers and a t-shirt. I didn't want to put on pants.

Once Garret was dressed, he led me out of the room. I still felt really off, like I was shaking inside my head, and everything was fuzzy inside and out. Lukas glanced over, and his expression changed immediately.

What is wrong?”

He's havin' an anxiety attack,” Garret said. “He asked me to distract him, 'cause he had a flashback and doesn't want no more, but there's nothin' to do in there except...”

Garret looked at Bonnie and frowned. Lukas didn't need more than that, though. He held out his arm, and I walked sluggishly over to him. Lukas scooted Sarah over and made enough room for both of us. I pretty much just fell down against Lukas and stared at nothing. After a minute, I started feeling better, so I turned to kiss his cheek.

Back with us?” he asked. I looked around the room. Everything was different. The television was on with one of the new Star Trek movies playing. Bonnie was sitting with Sarah on the chaise, painting Sarah's toenails. Garret was sitting next to me with my left hand on his leg. My right hand was in Lukas's hand. I'd lost time. Lovely.

How long?” I asked.

About forty minutes,” Lukas said, patting my hand. “I am sorry, but you would not respond.”

Dammit. I saw it coming. I tried to do what I was supposed to,” I said, rubbing my face with my hand. “I told Garret what was happening, got away from the situation, tried to distract myself...”

You have suffered intense stress tonight,” Lukas said, wrapping his arm around my shoulder. He pulled me against his side, and I rested my head on his shoulder. “Do not pick on yourself. Perhaps you should not be involved in future conflicts, though.”

Don't do that to me,” I said, jerking away from him. “I'm perfectly fine during the battle—”

I am not saying that you are not.” Lukas turned to face me and gestured with his hands as he spoke. “You are more than 'fine' while it is happening, but after—”

This happens when I'm stressed in other ways, too,” I interrupted him. “You can't just—”

Please stop,” Garret said quietly from behind me. Lukas raised his voice to talk over Garret.

I am not doing anything. I am suggesting that you—”

That I sit at home, worried sick about you and everyone else, too emotionally weak to—” I continued, getting louder in response.

I did not call you weak!” Lukas defended, even louder, moving to kneel on the couch. “This is a trigger for you! You cannot just—”

Lukas,” Sarah tried. “Zack!”

And how's it going to look to our people, huh?” I yelled. “Like I'm unwilling to do what I ask them to—”

It is not a mandatory duty for you!” Lukas gestured angrily. “You are going beyond the scope—”

Oh, so I shouldn't do anything unless it's mandatory?” I threw my hands in the air. “I should just sit around and look pretty—”

I hate when you start that,” he growled. “It is irrelevant. I am not calling you useless! This is not about—”

But it is!” I stood up. He stood to face me. “The one fucking thing I have going for me is brute strength—”

Bockmist! Du—

Stop it, both of you, now!” Bonnie shouted, so loudly that it startled me.

I stopped to stare at her, my heart racing. Lukas turned to her, eyes wide. Her hands were balled in fists; she was breathing heavily, and her jaw was clenched. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, opened them back up and continued.

Zack, Lukas is just trying to help. You don't need to bite his head off. He is worried about you, pendejo. Lukas, Zack's place in the flock as it is right now requires that he goes with you. More, he's attracted to high-intensity work. How would you feel if you were told that you should stop going out to fight because it makes you more violent and short-tempered for weeks afterward? Because it does!”

Bonnie looked between us, her eyes flashing. It was one of those moments where she made me want to cower behind the couch. She had a hell of a temper once it flared. I glanced at Lukas. He was frowning at his hands. Bonnie sighed.

These things don't even happen that often,” Sarah pointed out softly. We all turned to her. “Normally, we're looking at years or decades between major conflicts. We're getting hit a lot right now because Lukas is still establishing himself as a major power—and he is establishing that. It's going to get better after this, assuming that Marceli doesn't decide to go all blaze of glory style on our borders.”

After tonight, if he chooses to do so, it will result in extensive revolt,” Lukas said.

My point is,” Sarah said, her expression sad and tired, “that your fight is stupid, because we're not talking about a regular occurrence. If Zack feels like he's capable of doing it, we should let him be the judge of that. And Zack, Lukas not wanting you to be involved in combat has nothing to do with your overall worth. I'm sorry that you feel displaced right now, but this isn't going to replace the ambulance. Unless you're planning to become a guard and just didn't tell us?”

You know that I'm considering being a VU tech for a career,” I said. I sat down. All of my energy and anger was gone, sucked out by the unhappiness in my wife's eyes. A little had gone to the fear of Bonnie's wrath, too. “That involves more police action than medical.”

You complain about being paranoid now,” Lukas muttered as he walked across the room to the computer desk.

What else am I supposed to do? I'm not going to become a professional musician or video game player. Those are hobbies for me. I need to feel like I'm doing something of value to help,” I said. Lukas walked back over and flicked an envelope at me. I picked it up. “What's this?”

I was saving it for a surprise when the unpleasantness had passed, but I believe you need it now,” he said. I pulled the stack of papers out—it had already been opened. “It arrived last week.”

RN program?” I read the front letter out loud, frowning. I froze as I understood what I was reading. I had to read it twice to comprehend it. “I... I didn't even apply.”

I put in the application for you,” Lukas said. “I felt that if you were rejected, it would be better if you did not know. I apologize if you feel I overstepped my bounds.”

What?” Sarah said, holding her hand out. I passed it to her, staring at Lukas in a daze.

I was accepted,” I said. “They only take sixty students into the program a year. I'm a vampire. I never should have been accepted.”

I would have applied to the bridge program, as it is shorter, but it requires that you be active in the field,” he said. “I did not think you would mind the longer time in school, though. It is two programs. The first is for your associate's degree, but it blends with the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, letting you take eight units of the required twenty-four before you finish your associate's, because they overlap.”

Even if I get it—”

You are the first vampire to be accepted into any nursing program posthumously,” Lukas said. “If you cannot use it immediately, you will at least have that distinction. In these times, a lot can happen in four years. You can work on a Vampire Unit in the meantime, but it need not be full-time nor at all if you do not desire it. You said that if you were not changing, you would consider becoming an RN. I did not want one to preclude the other.”

But how can I attend? Classes are usually during the day,” I commented, reaching for the letter to see if it held the answer. Sarah handed it back.

You will take all available online courses,” Lukas said. “After that—it says in there that they are willing to accommodate your 'special needs.'”

I found the line he was talking about. Then I read the entire thing through carefully. Twice. It mentioned a worksheet I'd filled out, and I remembered Lukas asking me a bunch of questions... dammit. I was not suspicious enough. I looked down at the list.

Do any of my credits transfer? I've already taken Anatomy, Physiology and General Psychology,” I said.

Yes,” Lukas said. “They were prerequisites. You have to take these classes this semester—you are already enrolled.”

Well, look at you assuming I'd be all on board,” I said. Then I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him before he could think I was being serious. “You sneaky bastard.”

Bitte schön.” he said.

Danke schön,” I whispered. Suddenly, the idea of the last few weeks waiting for Sarah to be done with the nest wasn't difficult to take at all. The nagging sense of purposelessness that I had been trying to ignore vanished now that I had this piece of paper in my hand. “Danke, danke.

I didn't know how Lukas had managed it, but I couldn't have been more grateful. The only mistake he had made was planning to wait for a happier time to give it to me. I needed this now, so much that words didn't feel like enough to express it.

I was originally going to give it to you for a New Year's gift, but...” Lukas said as I sat back to look at the letter again.

But our New Years was all fucked over. No, don't worry about it. This is exactly when I needed this,” I said.

Congratulations, marra,” Garret said softly, patting my shoulder. I reached up, grabbed his hand and squeezed it.

Yeah, congrats,” Bonnie said, smiling. “Now you guys had better be done with that fight.”

You are impertinent,” Lukas told her.

Someone needed to be,” she said and stuck her tongue out.

Did you really call me a pendejo?” I asked her.

I didn't feel estúpido was strong enough. Also, I think you traumatized Garret,” she said. I turned around to find him shooting her a dirty look. I touched his face.

I'm sorry. You really don't like people arguing, do you?” I asked, worried. He shook his head.

Not flock. It escalates,” he said. I pulled him closer to bump my forehead into his.

I'm sorry,” I said. “Lukas and I fight. We always have. We're usually better about keeping it to ourselves, but this week has been a mess.”

I suppose the longer you go wivout it gettin' physical, the less it'll bother me,” he said. “Justin and Uriah used to row, and Justin would... Well, I telt you he had no problem usin' his powers on us.”

I glanced back at Lukas, whose expression was far from neutral; it was horrified. He moved over to the other side of Garret and put his arm around him. Garret looked startled.

Had I the ability, I would never do that to anyone I cared for,” Lukas said. “I might lose my temper and strike out, but so might Zack. I am not always the one who snaps first.”

No, but you do it more often,” I said.

Regardless, it seldom lasts more than a few seconds before we realize that we have gone too far and stop,” Lukas said. I nodded. Garret frowned.

You said—”

In the past tense,” I said. “Beat, past tense. Hasn't done it in years. We've had a few brief struggles since, but nothing where it was him having to prove how much stronger and more of a badass he is than me.”

I...” Lukas sighed, reached past Garret and patted my shoulder.

It's true. I've lived with them for a year now and while I may not always agree with his testing methods—not that they're as bad as Diarmad's could be—Lukas hasn't done anything that I'd describe as abusive. He just reminds me of my brothers. I...” Bonnie sighed and shook her head.

What?” Lukas asked.

Nothing,” she said. “I just miss my family.”

So schedule your trip,” Lukas said. “I will clear it with Diarmad as soon as you have dates.”

I will, but...” Bonnie shrugged.

But what?” Lukas asked, raising an eyebrow.

But we're about to move home, which means she'll have to find somewhere to live again. By herself, because she's too stubborn to admit that she hates living alone,” I said. Bonnie stared at me in surprise. She opened her mouth and closed it.

Move in wi' me,” Garret said. Bonnie turned her look of surprise to Garret. Her brown eyes got even wider.

What?”

I don't like living alone, neither,” he said. “We can find a two bedroom. If you don't care about me bringin' folk home from time to time, I'm not hard to live with. It'll save on rent, too.”

Hey, solves your whole complaint about vampires you're not sleeping with being handsy,” I pointed out.

Oh, that reminds me that I really need to ask you—” Bonnie started, but I interrupted her.

He got you off while you were in my lap,” I said. “I'm over it.”

He did what?” Lukas snapped, scooting away from Garret. Garret flinched.

Context!” Bonnie yelped.

I was feeding on her after the attack,” I explained, waving away the severe reactions. “I wasn't strong enough to keep her from... You know how she is. It's how he got her to stop molesting me. It took him another few minutes to convince me to stop feeding because I was tripping so hard. Then he carried her off to the bedroom. Sorry, I forgot that you weren't there.”

I wanted to make sure he was okay. You didn't see how bad it—”

It is fine,” Lukas said, holding up his hand to stop Bonnie from panicking. “You did nothing wrong. I do wish you were better at controlling yourself, though.”

Me, too,” Bonnie muttered. “I'm really embarrassed. I'm also sorry, Zack. I didn't know I'd done that. When I came out of it with Garret, I just assumed you'd passed me off as soon as you were done.”

It's okay,” I said. “If you hadn't fed me, I wouldn't have recovered so much,” I said.

I don't know if you realize this, but you're...” Bonnie looked away. I frowned.

I'm what?”

Your bite is stronger,” Lukas said. I turned to him.

It is?”

Uh-huh,” Bonnie said. Sarah nodded, too.

It is not quite as strong as when you were newly changed, but it is noticeable,” Lukas said.

So the combination with Bonnie's blood...”

Yeah, I was completely gone,” Bonnie said. “I've never fed a newbie, but if it's like that, I don't ever want to. I wasn't just unaware of who I was with, I didn't know where I was, either. I just knew that I was really, really happy. You could have drained me completely, and I wouldn't have noticed.”

St. John seemed fine,” I said.

St. John appears barely affected by having his throat torn out,” Lukas commented. “He is not a reactive man in the field; he is too well trained.”

Well-trained is right. He's totally different with his fiancée,” I said.

Fiancée?” Sarah and Bonnie exclaimed together. Lukas raised an eyebrow. I grinned. I knew none of them would know that.

I didn't know he had a fiancée!” Bonnie said, looking stricken. “I would never have... Ack! Oh my god, I feel awful. You knew, and you didn't say anything when—”

I only found out last night,” I said quickly. “She's pregnant, too.”

He...” Bonnie started swearing.

This is how you react to finding out someone cheats on their fiancée?” Sarah asked me, shocked. I shook my head.

No, but he said that he has permission to sleep around,” I said, not getting into specifics. He could work that out however he needed. “He might have lied, but I don't see why he would.”

You had to wait until I was good and pissed to add that part, didn't you?” Bonnie asked. I snickered. Sarah smacked my arm.

Hey, I had to talk to her, knowing that he'd just banged you,” I pointed out. “Also, I think I have an abnormally high knowledge of my friends' sex lives.”

Speaking of,” Garret said, getting Bonnie's attention. “You didn't answer me.”

Wait, are you asking me to sleep with you or move in with you?” Bonnie asked.

Is it an either-or question?” Garret asked. “I'm axin' you to move in wi' me. I'm up for sex, too. As long as you're back in your own bed for actual sleepin'.”

Why?” Bonnie asked. “I'd rather share a bed.”

Zack is the first person I've shared a bed wiv in my whole time as a vampire,” Garret said. I looked at him in shock. “I know you and Sarah was there, too, but you was over on your side, so's it was more like you wasn't there.”

Were,” I mumbled. Garret rolled his eyes at me. I frowned. “Sorry if I bothered you this evening.”

You didn't,” he said, looking away. “I'm okay sharin' wiv you. You're different.”

Because...?” Bonnie prompted. He looked over at her, held up two fingers and gave her a dirty look. I was pretty sure that was the English version of 'fuck off.'

Stay out of that, Bonnie,” I said.

No shite. Thanks for cockin' that up inatween us. Wasn't just me you upset. We might've been able to have sex proper if you—” Garret stopped and shot me an apologetic look while I winced.

Wait, what did I do?” Bonnie asked, frowning. “How's it different from defining 'relationship?'”

It just is,” Garret muttered.

Because that was answering a question, not unsolicited advice,” I said. “I told you that it was a bad move.”

What did it do? I can smell that you had sex,” Sarah asked. I sighed.

Sorry, marra. Didn't think,” Garret said.

It's not your fault,” I said. I shook my head, glanced at Sarah and then stared at the floor. “I probably would have been fine if I'd been able to come home, go straight to the shower and then screw. Instead, it was just one more load of stress to trigger my anxiety. You know that when I...”

I trailed off, hoping it was enough. Sarah crawled over and sat up on her knees to hug me. I patted her head. Then I dropped my hand back to rest on my knees.

I'm sorry. I was just trying to help,” Bonnie said. “I thought that if he just thought about it...”

Welcome to the problem zone of poly relationships,” Sarah said as she sat back down with a sigh. “You can't solve other couples' problems, especially if they don't ask. Sometimes that means you have to sit on what you're sure is the answer while they stumble around, driving you crazy. You really have to know your partner and their partner very well first so you know you aren't pushing something too soon or guessing entirely wrong.”

Yeah, sometimes we drive Jamie crazy, but she's really good at knowing when to stay out of it and when to call us out on something. Most of the time,” I said, rolling my eyes as I remembered two weeks of Lukas not speaking to me because Jamie had misunderstood the reason we were fighting in the first place. “Helper personalities are infamous for screwing up groups. Even if it's not other people's relationships, it can drain them so that they kill their own.”

I didn't know any of that,” Bonnie said. “I was just trying to be your friend.”

No one's saying you're not,” I said. “But next time, please wait for someone to ask before you say anything. It also would have been nice if you'd asked me if I wanted you to say something. It would have been an emphatic 'hell no.'”

Will someone please tell me what this conversation is about?” Lukas asked. Everyone went quiet. I don't think any of us knew who was supposed to answer. I was very worried that it would upset Lukas. In fact, it was enough that my stomach clenched with stress. Garret swallowed audibly before he spoke.

She accused me of... of...” Garret was inching away from Lukas. He closed his eyes tightly, gripped the cushion of the couch and mumbled, “I love him.”

My heart raced while my stomach managed to twist even harder. I closed my eyes when my vision started getting blurry. It wasn't fair. I wanted to hear him say it because he was happy about it, not like it hurt him. I didn't want to be a source of pain for him. Despite my best effort, I felt a traitorous tear fall onto the back of my hand.

Are you afraid of my reaction?” Lukas asked. I didn't respond.

I wanted to get up, leave and hide some place where I could cry without an audience. My stomach was in knots, and my head was starting to hurt. I really, really needed to be able to stop stuffing things inside—I didn't have any more space. If I didn't get away, I was going to lose it any minute. I really preferred it to be somewhere that I wasn't burdening everyone else with it, because I had a lot that needed out.

Sarah's hand touched my leg tentatively, and my head started buzzing. Fuck. I was about to have another panic attack. Lukas was saying something, but the buzzing in my head was too loud to make out what it was. I put my hands on the back of my head and leaned forward, forcing myself to try to take normal breaths. Vampires couldn't hyperventilate to unconsciousness, but it still didn't feel good to be doing it.

A hand wrapped around my arm and pulled me to my feet. I staggered and opened my eyes to see Lukas. He wrapped his arm around me and led me out of the room to his bedroom. He shut the door behind us and pulled me into a hug. That was the final straw; I lost it.

I clung to him and cried my eyes out. He held on quietly and let me. I don't know how long it took to get it all out, but I nearly made myself sick before it was done. He moved us over to the bed when I was down to residual gasps and lay down with me. After a while, I stared at nothing, my mind finally, blessedly blank. It was a relief.

I'm sorry,” I rasped once I felt up to speaking again.

Did you hear me earlier?” Lukas asked.

No,” I whispered.

What precisely made you so upset just now?” he asked.

Everything,” I answered.

Garret said that it upset you when he said it earlier.”

He doesn't want to,” I said. “Why did Bonnie have to say something? If he doesn't want to love me, he shouldn't have to think he does.”

He also said that you were concerned about that, but he told you that it is not true.”

Yeah, right. 'Cause he sounds like it makes him so happy,” I muttered.

It does not appear to be making you happy, either,” Lukas pointed out. “Were you happy when I told you that you could have a relationship with him?”

It didn't cause me pain,” I said. Then I realized that I still didn't know what Lukas felt about all of this. “Are you angry?”

I am not happy,” he admitted. “I know that it was not your intention, but you have taken the entire list that I gave you of things that I did not find acceptable and...”

He stopped and sighed. I was emotionally exhausted. Numb. I didn't have anything left to give him as far as empathy. I knew I should feel something, but I just didn't.

Not everything,” I said. “You're my only top. He hasn't bitten me during sex. Do you want us to stop seeing each other? Now's the time to say so, 'cause I don't have any energy left to be upset with.”

I do not,” Lukas said. “I want to not be afraid that you will leave me for him.”

What?” Lethargically, I moved my head so I could look at his face. His eyes were sad. “Why would I do that?”

Why would you not prefer him to me?” Lukas asked. “You are more alike. He does not lose his temper and hurt you. You have the opportunity at a relationship without the pain I have wrought upon ours. You would not have to live with the reminder of what I did to you. There is no longer the barrier of his inability to love you. He can give you—”

I don't understand,” I said. “Was there a memo I missed that I can't love you if I love him? He fits into a totally different place in my heart than you do. He's not the one in here with me letting me break down all over him. Lukas, you are my husband. He's my friend with benefits. Even if that changes to whatever, he's not you. He'll never touch that place in my heart that's yours. Without you, my entire world would collapse.”

A year and a half ago, you told me that you would not want anyone else,” he said.

Right back atcha,” I said. “Guess who had sex with another man first. I didn't offer so I could have Garret. You know that.”

That is not my point,” Lukas said.

Are you creating self-fulfilling prophesies?” I asked him. He finally looked at me. “You predicted that I was going to fall for someone else. Well, I did, and you didn't make me leave to have him. Are you regretting that? Are you trying to set us up to fail now? Are you so afraid that I'll leave you in some way—physically or emotionally—that you're gonna push me away?

Was that why you gave him to me? This way, you can sigh and say that you knew all along that this is what would happen, but at least I have someone to love, right? Do I take Sarah with me, or do we keep sharing her? Did you forget the fact that you've shared her with me for our entire relationship and I didn't leave you for her?”

Is that what I am doing?” he asked me softly. The whites of his eyes were pink as they welled up. “Am I... what is the... Sabotage. Am I sabotaging us?”

That's when I noticed that there was a part of me that applied long-term motivation to everything Lukas did. But that just wasn't true. While he planned and plotted, there were things that he did night by night with no clue how they'd turn out. I knew that he could be insecure, but I forgot that insecurity was motivated by fear. I had dismissed the insecurity and how scared he was along with it.

I hugged him and nestled my head under his chin. Two of his long-term male relationships before me had ended in death, and the third had ended with him feeling trapped and abused. That led to death eventually, too. Conversations like this always stemmed from his fear that he would either do to me what had been done to him or get me killed. I knew what he needed now.

Mein Mond und Sterne,” I said softly in German, “I choose you of my own free will. I chose this life with you and the dangers it brings. I do not fear, for you are here when I sleep. Please don't push me away unless you don't want me any longer. I love you as much tonight as the night I pledged my life to you. I will still love you as the stars grow dark in the sky.

Halfway through my fumbling attempt at poetry, he clutched me tightly and started shaking. By the end, he had moved me so he could bury his face against my chest. Words meant so much to him that sometimes I felt bad that I wasn't better with them. I imagined that lies must hurt him all the more for it.

I'm sorry that I was wrong about Garret,” I said softly. “You were right that I had never really questioned myself about it. I don't know if it was because you put the question in my head or made it okay later, but I honestly thought that since I had a man and a woman that I loved so dearly, I couldn't fall in love again, not really. But I'm not wrong about loving you. I'm not wrong that loving him doesn't change how I love you in any way. I wish I could let you feel what I do so you could believe me.”

He tried to say something, but it was garbled Germlish. I petted his hair and picked out a few random words trying to make sense of it. It didn't help. He must have been as emotionally backed up as I was.

The thought followed that the two of us had been through something tonight that no one else in the house had. We were both fresh from battle, wounded, tired and suddenly having to deal with domestic issues instead of recuperating.

I'm sorry I blew up at you earlier,” I added as I kept stroking his hair. It was soft from being freshly washed. “Thank you for getting me into the RN program and making sure I didn't have to sit around fretting about it.”

Thank you for saving my life,” he whispered in German after a couple tries.

I'd normally make a joke after that, but I'm just glad you're here with me,” I said, hugging him tightly. He hugged me back. “Do we have anything else to do this week?”

Attending to the state of security in the territory, thanking Emidio and Salem, condolences to those who lost friends and family tonight, replacing guard contingents, securing a treaty with Sacramento of no less than a cease fire or else full surrender of the territory... If he refuses, it would mean war... And then division of the territory between ourselves and Santa Rosa and possibly redrawing the border to San Francisco to balance land distribution...”

Shit,” I muttered, but he wasn't done.

Evangeline's teacher scheduled a parent-teacher conference next week as she prefers to do three a year. The girls' therapy appointment is Monday this week. I am meeting with an art collector who wants to buy a painting I have by a little-known artist from the Midwest who was his great-great-grandmother. It is the one I have in the living area of the guest house. I will listen to his pitch before I decide if I am willing to sell it.”

Put that off,” I said. “Or anything that can be. Can we find some night in the next few to just rest and recuperate?”

I was not done,” he said.

Fuck, Lukas. You're kidding,” I said. He shook his head against my chest.

You have a consult with a health sciences counselor next Friday, before you start classes the week after.”

Okay, that's next week. Just something this weekend. One night, that's all I'm asking,” I pleaded.

You are not responsible for any of the pol—”

Think about what you're about to say and our fight earlier before you finish that sentence,” I said. He sighed. “I'm not the only one I'm worried about here.”

I feel better,” he said.

So do I, but I don't think one little bit of time—” I was interrupted by a knock at the door as it cracked open. Someone kept it open to listen for our response. “Yeah?”

Sunrise is in fifteen minutes,” Sarah said. “Can we come to bed?”

Yes,” Lukas said. “Give us but two more minutes, please.”

Okay,” she said. The door shut.

Just consider it,” I said. “You going to go sleep with Jamie now?”

No,” he said. “I do not trust myself today. She is already aware that I will not be there, but here. She says that is acceptable for today, but if you are staying past tonight, then she is going to stay with your mother starting tomorrow. Seeing the children only during the daylight hours is distressing her.”

I don't want to go back to the nest,” I said.

We will not be,” Lukas said. “We are going to decide where to go tomorrow, but it will not be there. We will move most of our things home but take some to a temporary nest until Sarah is fully transitioned.”

Why not just move her into the guest house?” I mumbled sleepily. I could feel the sun coming now. Lukas didn't answer right away, and I started to say I wasn't serious.

There is no logical reason that I can think of,” Lukas said. “As long as it is locked from inside so that a disobedient child cannot enter and Bonnie stays in the living area, she will be entirely safe.”

Really? I was just throwing that out there. I hadn't thought it through,” I said.

I will think more on it in the evening, but I do not see a problem with it at her current developmental stage. If she can sleep in the house with Jamie here, then she is quite possibly fully transitioned. The guest house gives her a safe place to retreat if it becomes too much for her... No, I think you have solved our problem.”

Good,” I whispered as the door opened to let Bonnie, Sarah and Garret in.

I pushed Lukas over a little so I could scoot away from the edge. Garret looked warily at Lukas as he sat down next to me. I wrapped my arm around his waist and pulled him down to lie against my front. He sighed and relaxed under my arm. Lukas kissed the back of my head before moving to close the drapes. Then he lay down with his back against mine. I assumed he was cuddling Sarah.

The last thought I had before I closed my eyes was the comprehension that Lukas had just said that we were truly home.


Castles will be coming soon!